Dianne Molvig, J.
Are you looking to hire or be hired or even still in law school? Here are the traits and skills legal employers say job candidates need to stand out in the very competitive legal marketplace. Prepare to question your assumptions.
What do legal employers want in their new lawyer hires? How can they boost the odds of choosing the right new attorneys for their firm, organization or government agency? These were questions explored in depth in a nationwide survey by Educating Tomorrow's Lawyers. The survey's results question some old assumptions and practices.
"We see a real opportunity for employers to think about what they want and to hire in a way that aligns with that," says Alii Gerkman, director of Educating Tomorrow's Lawyers, an initiative of the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS), an independent research center at the University of Denver.
Striking on such an alignment would seem to be a practical, widely accepted goal. And yet, Gerkman adds, achieving it "will be a challenge."
Need for new hiring strategies
Gerkman relates an experience that illustrates where the challenge lies. In the course of her project's study, she brought together hiring partners from several large law firms for group working sessions. In one exercise, these lawyers received a stack of resumes describing new law school graduates having a wide range of academic achievements and other experiences.
The lawyers' first task was to peruse the resumes and decide the order in which they would select these candidates for job interviews.
Next, Gerkman presented the results of the IAALS survey of some 24,000 attorneys across the country who were asked to rate the foundations—including legal skills, professional competencies and personal characteristics—that entry-level lawyers need in order to succeed from day one, as well as the foundations they would have to acquire over time.
The participants in the working group discussed the foundations the survey showed were most important for new lawyers and generally agreed that the survey's findings "had hit the nail on the head," Gerkman says.
Then the lawyers were asked to go back to the resumes theyd chosen in the first exercise. Did their top candidate choices indeed have accomplishments, achievements and experiences that related to the foundations for success cited in the survey? Invariably, they did not.
"There was a shift in the room," Gerkman recalls, "and people looked at me and said, 'You kind of tricked us there.'" There was no trickery. The lawyers saw for themselves that a mismatch existed between what they said they wanted in new lawyers and how they actually selected job candidates to interview.
They had not chosen based on the foundations they'd just agreed were so essential. Instead, they'd made their choices mostly based on traditional criteria employers often use, such as class rank, law school prestige and law review experience.
This mismatch is a common phenomenon in the legal profession, in Gerkman's view. While changing that is a challenge, she says, there's also an opportunity.
"One of legal employers' biggest costs—but also their biggest value—is their human capital," she says. "To the extent they can hire in a way that serves their clients and also enables them to identify top talent that's perhaps defined differently than it was in the past, they can have a competitive advantage. They will stand out in a very tight legal market."
Closing a gap
Do law students leave law school prepared to practice law? Various studies have shown that the answer from practicing lawyers is "no." For instance, one survey in 2015 found that only 23 percent of legal practitioners believe new lawyers have the right skills to enter the profession (BARBRI Group, State of the Legal Field Survey).
The IAALS' Educating Tomorrow's Lawyers initiative launched the Foundations for Practice project with the stated goal of "closing the gap between school and career, between credentials and capabilities, and between thinking like a lawyer and becoming one." This survey was a step toward that vision.
The more than 24,000 practicing attorneys who...